Monday, February 1, 2010

Is This The Rarest Color-Plate Book Of All?

Death of Ponitawski, detail.
Only one copy has come to auction in thirty-five years. There is only one copy in institutional holdings worldwide. So few were issued, in fact, that the publisher didn’t bother having a title page printed. Only four copies are known to exist. This is one of them.

Manuscript title inlaid to window-panel with engraved border.

The book is Military Duties, Occurrences &c. &c., a color-plate book of the utmost rarity by Henry Alken, one of England’s great artist-designer-engravers of the nineteenth century. The book is at my side as I write; it’s another great day in Rarebookadoon, the enchanted rare book republic in the mist where opportunities like this don’t materialize very often.

The book was issued with fifty-six hand-colored etched plates, each inlaid within a window-panel cut from a leaf of gray paper with an elaborately engraved border surrounding the print. Title and captions are in inked manuscript. The copy before me is incomplete with only forty-three of the original fifty-six plates remaining, the others neatly excised from their window-panels.

The General's Tent. Captions in manuscript.

Only one copy has come to auction within the last thirty-five years; it, too, incomplete. OCLC/KVK note only one copy in institutional holdings, at Yale; it is, apparently the only complete copy to be recorded, presumably the same copy noted by Abbey as being sold in 1907. The only other copy to come under Abbey's notice was also incomplete.

This copy is the variant noted by Abbey of Alken's A Collection of of Interesting Subjects of Marine Views, Military Parade, Hunting, Coursing, Racing &c &c .


“The rarest Alken item: unknown to Siltzer, Slater and Schwerdt. Two other copies only can be traced: one, in the possession of D.C. Colman, Esq., and the second a sale room record for December 1907…According to the sale record the date of the book is 1830, but it would appear highly probable that it was considerably earlier, for the following reasons: spelling of the publisher’s name as McLane and not McLean places it before 1830, and the few plates that portray actual historical incidents all bear on the Russian campaign against Napoleon. Further, by 1830 the work of Alken was devoted to sporting subjects only. A reasonable guess at the correct date is more likely 1822 or 1823, and probably even before 1820” (Abbey).


Abbey notes of the second copy that "the title, however, is a variant [as here], giving the artist's name, and with a title more in consonance with the lettering on the spine, as follows: Military Duties / Occurances &c &c / By / Henry Alken / Collected and Published / by / Thomas McLane / 26 / Haymarket." In the copy under notice, the publisher is spelled "McLean," not McLane; Abbey's first argument is thus moot. Whatever the case, nailing this book's true publication date is, at this point and perhaps for all time, impossible. At best, it can be dated c. 1820-1830.

"The copy sold in 1907 was given the following description in the sale catalogue: 'Alken, H. Military duties, Occurances etc., 56 coloured etchings, inlaid with titles in MSS. So few copes were issued that it was not considered worth while by the publishers to have a title printed.' (Book Auction Records, Dec. 1907)" (Abbey).

“Henry Thomas Alken, born on 12 October 1785 at 3 Dufours Place, was the dominant sporting artist of the early nineteenth century...Henry's first sporting prints were published in 1813...From then on he delivered a long series of designs to the leading sporting printsellers—S. and J. Fuller [who invented the paper doll], Thomas McLean, and Rudolph Ackermann among others. He issued many sets of prints in wrappers and provided illustrations to a series of books, employing the pseudonym Ben Tally Ho for his mildly satirical sallies, and often collaborating with his friend the sporting journalist Charles James Apperley (1779–1843), known as Nimrod.


“...He was also a prolific designer, etcher, and lithographer of scenes relating to racing, shooting, coaching, and other sports, and in 1820 he issued a series entitled National Sports of Great Britain. He wrote several books on aspects of engraving, including The Art and Practice of Engraving (1849),,, In later life he drifted into ill health, consumption, and poverty...he died in the early summer of 1851” (Timothy Clayton and Anita McConnell, ‘Alken family (per. 1745–1894)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

I've had many color-plate books pass through my hands over the years. In late 2008, I had an opportunity to research and catalog one of the scarcest suites of plates by James Gillray, The Rake's Progress at the University (London: Published December 22d 1806 by H. Humphrey).

"Convened for wearing Gaiters - sad offense! Expelled - nor e'en permitted a defense."

Only Yale, the Library of Congress, and British Museum have this series of five plates in their first state (they were reprinted by Bohn in 1851); there are no records in OCLC, KVK, of ABPC. Yet this series - unsigned by Gillray - was never published as a bound, titled volume, as Alken's Military Duties, Occurances &c.&c.

In my experience, the Alken is amongst the rarest, if not the rarest, of all 19th century color-plate books.

ALKEN, Henry. Military Duties, Occurances &c. &c. [London]: Thomas McLean 26 Haymarket, [n.d., c. 1820-30].

First edition (variant). Quarto (10 1/4 x 7 in; 260 x 175 mm). Forty-three (of fifty-six) hand-colored etched plates inlaid within a window-panel cut from a leaf of gray paper with an elaborately engraved border surrounding the print. Title and captions in manuscript.

Contemporary full emerald-green straight-grain morocco. Blind-tooled border within French fillets. Central panel with gilt ruled borders and ornamented corners. All edges gilt. Gilt title to spine. Chemised within a quarter morocco slipcase.

Abbey, Life 349. Index to British Military Costume Prints 1500-1914, 41.

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